In August, after a full day at school followed by a night shift working at the living center, Donna Miller was driving home when police sirens flared behind her. A Murray police officer pulled her over, telling her that he thought she was driving erratically. Despite her passing the breathalyzer, the officer — who failed to engage either a patrol car camera or body camera; providing no perspective on the dubious justification for his decision — unilaterally chose to impound Donna’s car and haul her in for a blood test; a blood test that would ultimately show that Donna was completely clean.
Donna is black and low-income. Sadly, this is not the first time she’s experienced painful ethnic or even socio-economic profiling. But when she recently moved to Utah, she had quietly hoped for better.
Donna’s life is a model of courage. At 59 years old, this single mother of three adult children reflected on the legacy she might leave her grandchildren and determined, despite her age, to pursue a college degree. LDS Business College offered her a scholarship and with justified trepidation she liquidated all that she owned to move from Washington, D.C., to Utah and start anew. She works full-time in the evenings and weekends as a nurse’s aide. After class, Donna is the last student to leave the tutoring lab. She is quite literally giving everything she has to achieve a lifelong goal, guided by a desire to help improve the lives of others.
But that morning, this strong woman lost her car, paycheck and a good measure of her dignity. When she explained to the officer that she could not afford to have her car impounded and repeatedly begged him to allow her “to call her home teacher,” he refused, without explanation or empathy. Donna made no recorded traffic violations, and her breath and blood tests were completely clean. When she was finally released from the police station after three hours, she had to pay over $750 simply to have her car returned. Where did she go from the station? Straight to school — she had missed the short window for sleep between work and class.
Unfortunately, because Donna had been accused (once again, erroneously and subjectively) of impairment, her driver’s license was suspended. She had to pay an additional $350 fee to the DMV to have her license reinstated despite her being factually innocent. And despite the clean blood test, she was still required to retain a pro bono attorney from Utah Legal Clinic in order to get a full dismissal of the case. After all this, no apology was issued by the police department and no refund for all of her expenses was ever offered.
The collateral consequences of the profiling and treatment to which Donna was subjected by this officer and the Murray Police Department are incalculable. Imagine if Donna’s friends had not rallied to help her pay for the release of her car and the reinstatement of her license? The cost to have her car returned nearly exceeded the car’s value. She might have lost her transportation, then her job, then her lodging, and then her life goal of pursuing further education — all because she was falsely accused. Now, she carries fear and anxiety toward those whom she should trust. I was overwhelmed and inspired when she told me recently that she had gone daily for the subsequent four weeks to a spiritual sanctuary in order to humbly ask God to change her heart so that she could forgive the police that had unfairly judged her.
I share Donna’s experience navigating systemic prejudice as a call to action for each of us in this new year. With racism and xenophobia spewing forth daily from our country’s highest levels and with painful policies being directed by fear rather than evidence or logic, prejudiced attitudes and behaviors seem to be growing, not diminishing. Donna’s recent experience illustrates, in a personal way, not only how desperately change is needed, but how negatively impactful the lack of change can be in one person’s life, and writ large in our society.
Despite the acrimony that seems to characterize our modern discourse and even behavior, I hope we will each commit in 2019 to be more understanding, more forgiving, more kind — slower to judge and faster to repudiate prejudice — our own, or that of others. Let us work together in building bridges of commonality, to listen a little better and longer, and to purge harmful bias and unkind treatment to anyone. I further hope we can open our eyes beyond our normal view and seek out ways to help those who may need extra support in our communities. Doing so, we will have positive impact beyond what we know.